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Afterschool Programs Can Help Close the Achievement Gap | Commentary

By Jodi Grant One of the sternest and most persistent challenges confronting education policymakers is finding a solution to the “achievement gap,” which leaves so many children from low-income families without a strong or reliable path to success. That was evident during this year’s congressional push to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly the No Child Left Behind Act), as many raised concerns that the new House bill shifts funding away from programs that support the education of these at-risk children.  

Closing the achievement gap requires addressing the mounting disparities in opportunity — an opportunity gap — that divides children of low-income families children from their more economically fortunate classmates. To be sure, there’s no panacea for problems in our schools that reflect the inequalities in our larger society. But one consistently successful approach has been found not during the school day, but in the hours immediately following it, in afterschool programs and in the summer learning programs that serve as a learning bridge from one school year to the next.  

Years of evaluations have demonstrated that afterschool programs can improve students’ behavior, attendance, academic performance and more. These programs help children learn to work in teams, provide them with mentoring opportunities, and expose them to new experiences. In fact, a new wave of scholarship is focusing in on the important role that “social capital” plays in children’s academic success. By connecting with adults and other students and developing ongoing relationships and a sense of shared purpose, children gather the social capital that can keep them engaged in learning and help them participate in the vibrant life of their schools and communities.  

Activities that provide opportunities for just such interaction and shared enterprise are the very lifeblood of afterschool programs — and this time of year, for the summer learning programs that are often intertwined with afterschool. These programs provide kids with fun, educational activities like robotics competitions and rocketry clubs, for example, as well as opportunities for sports and physical activity. They connect students with community-based organizations and the adults who run them — role models and mentors who help children imagine a future that extends beyond the walls of their schools and the intersections that define their neighborhoods.  

Unfortunately, there’s an afterschool opportunity gap, too. According to data from the Afterschool Alliance’s comprehensive household study, America After 3PM, 4.5 million children from low-income families are in afterschool programs, but nearly twice as many — 9.7 million — are not, even though their parents would sign them up if a program were available.  

Another disheartening number: By the time they reach the 6th grade, students from middle class families have spent approximately 4,000 more hours in an afterschool or summer learning program than their classmates from low-income families. In fact, unequal access to summer learning programs accounts for about two-thirds of the overall achievement gap between students from low- and middle-income families, with students from low-income families falling about two months behind their middle-income classmates over the course of the summer. That summer learning loss is why nine in ten teachers say that, at the start of the school year, they spend at least three weeks re-teaching lessons from previous years.  

The parents who are lucky enough to have kids in afterschool programs think the world of them. Nearly 90 percent say they are satisfied with their child’s program. Driving that overwhelming approval is parents’ appreciation that these programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn, and help working families. Those are important considerations for all families, of course, but low-income parents have fewer alternatives available, so may find afterschool programs especially crucial.  

That’s precisely why federal support for afterschool programs is so important. In particular, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, the principal federal funding stream for afterschool and summer learning programs, needs to be better funded and to remain a discrete source of funding dedicated to those programs.  

The House and Senate will have to resolve differences in their respective versions of the bill, of course, before an Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization arrives on the President’s desk. As they proceed, they should keep in mind that, for the new law to work, it must provide afterschool programs with the support they need to help close the opportunity gap, and with it, make headway in closing the achievement gap. Our country’s future depends on it.  

Jodi Grant is the Executive Director of the Afterschool Alliance.  

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